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Wilks ‘impressed’ with Cardinals screen game, not committed to base D

Arizona Cardinals head coach Steve Wilks makes a call during the second half of an NFL football game against the San Francisco 49ers, Sunday, Oct. 28, 2018, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

TEMPE, Ariz. — “Putting players in position to be successful” had been an empty mantra from Arizona Cardinals coaches through the first seven weeks of the season.

Linebackers and first-round picks Deone Bucannon and Haason Reddick found themselves benched at different points throughout. On offense, running back David Johnson and receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who have plenty of solid tape to back their talent, struggled to find a footing.

For the first time under first-year coach Steve Wilks, all the problems came together Sunday in a Week 8 victory. Bucannon and Reddick played Sunday in an 18-15 comeback win over the San Francisco 49ers, Johnson and Fitzgerald finally found a rhythm and the Cardinals found a way to ease a frustrating start to the Wilks era.

They just might have positive foundations for improvement heading into a bye week.

Here’s what impressed Wilks, who after watching the tape discussed what schematic changes could stick for the Cardinals and more as they prepare for the second half of the year.

Base defense lends promise

The injury to safety Tre Boston, who Wilks is hopeful will return to play the Kansas City Chiefs after the bye, will add questions to how Arizona approaches its defensive personnel.

The Cardinals stopped a run-heavy San Francisco attack with a base 4-3 defense, using Reddick and Bucannon, the latter of whom had been benched for the last four weeks. The three-linebacker look moved interior safety Budda Baker deep for the majority of snaps.

“I don’t want to say that that was a difference — because I know that’s what you guys are going to try to pigeonhole me to say, ‘Oh, all of a sudden he went back to base and that was the difference in the game,'” Wilks said. “We did a good job. Again, we wanted to show them something different based off the first game because we knew they were going to be practicing nickel.

“I thought Bucannon did a tremendous job. He played physical, played downhill. Haason did a good job as well.”

Wilks said the base look could be mixed in with the nickel package that he prefers to use against versatile offenses that attempt to put linebackers in bad matchup situations.

Peterson breaks the huddle

Patrick Peterson’s role in breaking the huddle in the Cardinals locker room after the Week 8 win wasn’t meant as a signal to the cornerback a week after he asked to be traded before reaffirming his commitment to Arizona.

“What was said and what was talked about last week is in the past,” Wilks said Monday. “Patrick is a captain. He’s a leader on this football team. Again, I want him to have a voice, and that’s what he wanted to do and I gave him that opportunity.”

Wilks admitted Peterson’s game was inconsistent. He lost track of 49ers wideout Marquise Goodwin on a 55-yard touchdown in the second half before recovering to bat down another deep shot to Goodwin in the fourth quarter.

Leftwich’s screen game looks good on paper

During the debut of promoted offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, the Cardinals’ screen game to both running back David Johnson and receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Christian Kirk wasn’t just about getting those players going.

It was also about “trying to slow” the 49ers defensive line.

“You saw some of the things last night. I was very impressed with the screen game,” Wilks said. “That was something we knew we had to stop against them, and I thought we did a tremendous job of trying to perfect that ourselves.”

But indeed, it created big plays for Johnson especially, who took three of his four catches out of the backfield for more than 10 yards.

Fielding punts

Twice on Sunday, punt returner Christian Kirk fielded a San Francisco punt inside the 10-yard line, seemingly a no-no. But Wilks said one of the plays was for good reason.

Kirk is coached to fair-catch punts deep in Arizona territory if one of his teammates is in the vicinity and still blocking a gunner.

“I think it’s a judgment call,” Wilks said. “The one particular one he did catch — I think it was all the way like inside the 5 — he had to really based off Bene (Benwikere) not allowing his guy to go free.”

The fear was a bouncing punt that wasn’t fair-caught could touch an unsuspecting Cardinals player and give the opponent a chance to recover the ball.

Wilks said blockers like Benwikere are supposed to release around the 15-yard line to avoid finding themselves in vulnerable positions.

Golden pops

Defensive end Markus Golden led the Cardinals with seven tackles and two tackles for loss, but it was the how that showed up live and on the film.

“Coach Holcomb and I were talking about that this morning. A lot of teams for whatever reason — we had the same thing last night with us — they don’t really block that backside defensive end,” Wilks said. “That’s why you have to have a good guy really close.”

Close Golden did from behind by running down at least three plays, a sign his athleticism is back after missing the first three games of the season recovering from a torn ACL.

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